List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

     A military family
     Second Punic War
     Lake Trasimene
     Fabian tactics
     Pursued in exile

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

A military family: 241-219 BC

Hannibal's boyhood is passed in a context of stirring adventure. Carthage has lost much valuable territory to Rome in the First Punic War, but a new empire is being created in Spain by Hannibal's father, Hamilcar Barca. After Hamilcar's death, in 228 BC, the command is taken by Hasdrubal - keeping it in the family, for he is Hannibal's brother-in-law. The boy's early career is spent campaigning with these two relations. When Hasdrubal is killed, in 221, Hannibal succeeds to the command.

The Carthaginian successes in Spain alarm the Romans, who claim that Hannibal's attack on Sagunto in 219 violates the peace treaty made after the war. A diplomatic protest is soon followed by military preparations.

The Second Punic War: 218-201 BC

The speed with which the crisis escalates into war suggests that both sides regard another conflict as inevitable. Hannibal forces the pace, taking the bold decision that his best chance of victory is to carry the war into Italy - where the ability to sustain a long campaign on Roman soil has been proved, in recent history, by Pyrrhus.

In May of 218 Hannibal marches north from Cartagena with an army of perhaps 32,000 infantry, 8000 cavalry and thirty-seven elephants. His ferrying of the elephants across the Rhone on rafts, then getting them through the icy passes of the Alps, in both cases in the face of hostile tribesmen, has provided the basis of popular tales ever since. By October Hannibal's army is in north Italy.

Battles with Celtic tribesmen and the hazards of the journey have taken a heavy toll. The army now numbers only 20,000 infantry and 6000 cavalry (the ancient historians fail to report how many of the thirty-seven elephants have survived).

Yet by December, two months later, after the defeat or tactical withdrawal of various Roman forces, the Carthaginian army has swelled again to 28,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. The reason is a significant one in the development of this war. With each indication of Roman weakness, large numbers of Gauls (or Celts) abandon their allegiance to Rome and join Hannibal. Hannibal is banking on this being the pattern throughout Italy.

Lake Trasimene: 217 BC

After wintering in Bologna, Hannibal moves south in the spring of 217. In May he lures a Roman army into a trap. On a misty morning the Romans move into a narrow plain beside Lake Trasimene. Unknown to them the surrounding hills are occupied by the Carthaginian army. When they swoop down, the Romans are unprepared and defenceless. Many are driven into the lake. As many as 15,000 are killed.

Even with this psychological advantage, Hannibal decides against marching on Rome. Instead he moves to the south of the peninsula, hoping that his success will persuade many of the often discontented Italian allies to join him.

Cannae: 216 BC

The year 216 brings Hannibal his greatest victory, in one of the famous battles of history. The armies meet near the east coast, at Cannae, on an open plain which Hannibal has chosen as good ground for his cavalry - a section in which he outnumbers the Romans (by perhaps 10,000 to 6000), whereas his infantrymen are fewer than theirs (35,000 to at least 48,000).

Hannibal's tactics are a classic case of enveloping an enemy. The centre of his line yields slowly to the Roman assault, thus forming a crescent - which becomes a complete circle when his cavalry gallop round from the wings. The Romans, constricted in space, are fighting in all directions. Only about 10,000 escape from this disaster.

Fabian tactics: 216-203 BC

After this victory many of Rome's allies in southern and central Italy desert to Hannibal's cause. But a majority stand firm in their allegiance. To that extent his strategy has failed. He commands the most powerful army in the Italian peninsula but even so is not strong enough to besiege Rome into submission.

Rome, in her turn, now has a devastating strategy, pioneered by Fabius. The success of his policy wins him the title Cunctator, the 'delayer'. His technique is for Roman armies to pester Hannibal continuously, denying him supplies or easy passage but wherever possible avoiding direct engagement.

Gradually, over twelve years, this strategy succeeds. Hannibal becomes like a bull in the ring, tormented by lesser beings while his strength slowly ebbs away. The extraordinary fact is how long he remains within Italy as an alien force, almost totally isolated (reinforcements sometimes come from Carthage, but few and infrequently).

Having arrived through the Alps in 218 BC, he does not finally depart until 203. The eventual reason is the need to defend Carthage, which is now threatened by a Roman army. Hannibal meets it in 202 at Zama, an unidentified site in northern Tunisia. For the first time in his life he is decisively defeated. Rome is at last in a position to impose terms.

Enemy of Rome: 203-183 BC

Carthage is reduced to military impotence by Rome's harsh terms. For some years Hannibal remains in the city, occupying positions of authority. But threats from Rome cause him to flee, in 195 BC, to offer his services to a Syrian king who is preparing war against Rome.

When the Romans defeat the Syrians in battle, Hannibal features among their demands. He flees to another enemy of Rome, a king of Bithynia, in whose service he defeats Rome one last time (unusually for him, in an encounter at sea). Soon Rome is again in a position to demand his head. In his mid-60s, probably in 183 BC, Hannibal commits suicide at Libyssa. A dismal end - but no other enemy of Rome has a record of such success against such odds.